COWES WEEK – The Regatta

It’s called a Regatta, but that’s an understatement if ever there was one, for this yachtfest is Cowes Week, the time of year when the inhabitants of the English town of Cowes on the Isle of Wight, rent out their houses, kennel the dogs and cats, and disappear. The ‘yachties’ are about to descend on the Island for what the glossy magazines call ‘the week of the year in the sailing calendar.’  

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Cowes Town

Although the town will never again play host to the reigning monarchs of four countries as they did in 1909 when King Edward VII of England, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, the Tsar of Russia and the King of Spain visited with their yachts, there is consolation in the whiff of serious money that comes with today’s royally rich. Oil barons and City whizz kids crowd the pavements of the narrow streets and swig vintage champagne from bottles as they stagger from one party to the next. Old salts and wannabe ‘yachties’ dressed with impeccable regatta cred. stroll the narrow streets with polished brass telescopes under their arms, as the bemused local population looks on in wonderment. Cowes6

During the Regatta, over 800 boats and around 9,000 crew members will descend on this small town in the south of England. Cowes is not just for international yachtsmen, however. Non-sailors also flock to the island to enjoy the atmosphere, to sit on the beach and gaze at the coloured spinnakers that dance on the waters, to join the pleasure boats that sail around the competitors, and to gawp at the great, glossy yachts of the world’s billionaires, anchored offshore. Nor is boating on the stretch of water that separates the Island from mainland England, the Solent, confined to just these few highlighted days in the year: the number of sailing clubs tucked away in every harbour and cove has led to the south coast being dubbed Marinaland.

Boats at Seaview
Boats at Seaview

For the visitors who decide to join in the spirit of Cowes Week, dressing to look the part is easy. Stalls line the pedestrianised streets during the eight days of the Regatta and are on hand to sell overpriced tee-shirts, navy sweaters sporting capstans and anchors, and peaked caps festooned with enough braid to satisfy a Ruritanian General. Blue and white are still the colours of choice, but wannabe sailors should beware of the striped matelot look much favoured by minor celebs.

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The genuine articles are available in the somewhat old-fashioned local shops that make no effort to look stylish or enticing, favouring instead a turn of the century faux ‘ships chandlers on the quayside’ look as befits Queen Victoria’s island.

Boats on the Sea, People on the Beach
Boats at Sea, People on Beach

But Cowes Week is about more than dressing up. It is an exhilarating mix of world-class sailing, jazz, rock n’roll, and brass bands, clowns, unicyclists, and street theatre. For the people who want to take a break from watching the more than 200 races during the Regatta, there is constant entertainment in the Yacht Haven where there are food stalls, a huge beer tent, and music from live bands that play day and night.

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‘The diamond in the Solent’ is how this 23×13-mile island has been described, not only because of its shape but because of its safe, sandy beaches, great pubs and restaurants and a range of resorts to beat anything Continental Europe has to offer. And with an excellent transport system, everything is within easy reach.

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Sandown, Pier and Beach from Cliff Top

The beauty of the Island as a venue for sailing events is that there is so much to see and do away from the coast. There are a wealth of activities on offer and whether by car, bike, public transport or on foot over the miles of bridle paths and downland walks, the island is easy to explore.  With ultra-fast catamarans and jet-propelled boats making the crossing to the mainland in 10 and 25 minutes respectively, if the need for a faster pace should arise, day trips can easily be made to places like Portsmouth, Brighton and the great cathedral cities of Winchester and Salisbury.Cowes11

Away from the main yachting town, messing about in boats is best indulged on the six-mile stretch of sands at Ryde or the glorious crescent of golden beach between Sandown and Shanklin. In the classic villages of Bembridge and Seaview you will still see and hear the sights and sounds of long-forgotten English summers as children play cricket, tennis and deck quoits, for this is an island where families with children feel comfortable, where the swimming is safe and the beaches are clean.  It boasts not one, but two, dinosaur museums (it’s not called Dinosaur Island for nothing and fossil hunts are a regular occurrence), Blackgang Chine claims to be the oldest theme park in the country, and there is a wonderful zoo at Sandown where rare tigers are bred and the cubs are a great hit with children.Isle of Wight from the Sea

The Island from the Sea at Sunset

The Isle of Wight has now firmly established its reputation as the venue for the premier pop Festival which takes place in June. It was the venue in 1970 for the first major pop festival in Europe when, for a few days, 600,000 young people with bells around their necks and flowers in their hair lived the dream of the dawning of Aquarius. They had dance-ins and love-ins to the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson, The Doors and just about every other rock and folk musician who could get to the Island. It is said that this was the final break with the influence of Queen Victoria who spent a large part of her life on the Island at her Osborne House home, from 1851 until she died in 1901.

Modernity is found in the indoor and outdoor swimming pools, fitness centres, surfing, canoeing and body-boarding at many beach venues. For the adventurous, there are hang-gliding schools, bungee jumping and flights in small ‘planes around the island. Half the island is a designated area of outstanding natural beauty and its 80 miles of trails and 60 miles of coastal paths are perfectly laid out for walkers. There are forests, downlands, medieval villages, valleys and shady creeks, and enough museums, Roman villas, castles and manor houses to keep culture vultures happy for weeks.

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Red Funnel Ferry Southampton – Cowes

But if you come for the sailing and to mix with the ‘yachties’, if you want to be considered one of the sailing fraternity you should be wearing a team shirt – preferably one of last year’s. So, if you are thinking of coming back for the celebrations in 2019, make sure that you get hold of one of this year’s shirts.

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Cowes Fireworks: Copyright Isle of Wight Tourist Board

And if you manage it right this week, if you manage to look the part, to walk the walk and talk the talk, you might get invited to one of the yacht clubs to watch the fireworks on the last night. But if not, you can watch them from the beach with the rest of the happy holidaymakers, join in the last night celebrations which may go on until the wee small hours or just sit it out in one of the great eateries on the Island. For despite its social cachet, this yearly celebration of England’s sea-faring heritage is for everyone.

 

Lendy Cowes Week 2018:  August 4th – 11th.   Official website: www.lendycowesweek.co.uk/

Information:  https://www.visitisleofwight.co.uk/whats-on/lendy-cowes-week-p1464171

 

CYPRUS – Aphrodite’s Island

Once bitten forever smitten, they say of Cyprus, and I can vouch for that.  Lying at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa, this island of Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, offers a magical blend of romance and relaxation in a landscape untouched by time – away from the coastal resorts that is.

I fell for its charms many years ago when a Zorba-like boat captain whisked us off in his boat for a seafood picnic on an offshore island, later to watch the most glorious sunset I’d ever seen.  In retrospect, the colours of the setting sun and the purple and pink skies probably owed a lot to the wine consumed on deck but that was the start of my love affair with the island.

Aphrodite's Rocks (Limassol to Paphos
Aphrodite’s Rock, Cyprus

The legendary birthplace of the Goddess is a golden yellow rock that juts into the sea on the coastal road between Limassol and Paphos, and 4,000 years on from her tempestuous birth from the foamy ocean, her legacy of love is still attracting young and old.  Swim around the rock three times and you will retain your youthful looks, I was told!

Unfortunately I didn’t have time to test this offer as we were on the way to Paphos to visit the ruins of the nearby ancient city-state of Koúrian, wonderfully situated on the cliffs above the sea, where we sat on the steps of the amphitheatre imagining ourselves as 5th century theatregoers, before wandering off to a nearby site to admire the still discernable central heating system and bath-houses and the well-preserved mosaics of fighting Gladiators.

Four thousand years of civilization and priceless cultural treasures are visible in Paphos where the harbour, still used by the local fishermen, is the focal point of the town, and cafés, bistros and bars line the waterfront.  As the sun sets and the fishing boats chug out to sea for the night’s trawl the medieval fort on the edge of the sea turns honey coloured, lovers stroll up and down the promenade and from bars and restaurants, the musical sounds of Zorba the Greek can just be heard above the tinkle of ice in glasses.   And yes, I know Zorba wasn’t a Cypriot, but the music is everywhere and everyone seems to like it.

If time allows, it is a good idea to alternate days on the beach with days in the mountains, and in this case, Limassol, Cyprus’s second city, is your best base.   You’ll eat well in this town, and cheaply, whether you like chips with everything (Cyprus is big on chips – a boon for those with children) or want to try some of the local dishes like kleftiko (lamb cooked in the oven until it falls off the bone), stifado (a sort of beef stew) Afelia (pork marinated in red wine) or the famous meze (a selection of meat and fish dishes).   With hotels from budget to 5-star, a public beach with changing tents, sun-loungers, jetties on which to stroll, and that always sparkling sea, there is something for everyone.

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Some of the beaches are man-made and the long 8-mile strip of development may appear bland but don’t dismiss Limossol too quickly: the old town makes up for the modernity of the new. There is a daily market that shouldn’t be missed, where soft velvety peaches nudge scarlet cherries, and melons and apricots tumble in perfumed profusion.  And buying a pint of freshly squeezed orange juice for 1 Euro just has to be a bargain.  At night the Tavernas by the Old Harbour offer great seafood and in many of the restaurants you can join in the Greek dancing – to Zorba the Greek, of course – if you have the courage.

Mountain Village, CyprusIf you like driving, Cyprus is one place you should avail yourself of a 4WD.  Up in the Troodos mountains, steep hairpin bends and the lush green mountain backdrop gives way to ancient cobbled trails that lead to peaceful villages nestling on the slopes of 6,500-foot Mount Olympus.

In the fields round about, brown and black goats chomp the grasses among the rosemary and thyme.  Lizards and butterflies vie for your attention and during the mild winter, almond trees blossom and lemon and orange trees perfume the air, but in the summer flowering pink oleander and broom cover the hillsides, a magnet for the bees that produce the exquisite Cyprus honey.  At certain times of the year, birds from Africa, Asia and Europe swoop overhead in compelling formations as they migrate to their various homes.

Most of the villages have an ancient monastery displaying time-worn frescoes and rare icons, and a familiar sight is a monk in full black robes sitting outside his tiny chapel, usually with a mobile ‘phone clasped to his ear.  In the afternoon the only sound is the slap of counters as old men play backgammon in the inky-dark bars of the villages.

Kakopetria set in the northern foothills of the Troodos is one of the loveliest mountain villages.  It straddles two fast-flowing streams in the middle of which lies the old village, lovingly brought back to life by local craftsmen.  Wooden houses with ornate verandahs filled with lemon geraniums and perfumed roses line the narrow streets and the village women making lace shelter from the sun under vine trellises.

Amazingly clear waters surround Cyprus

In complete contrast is Aiya Napa where you’ll find the island’s best beaches, soft golden sands leading to gently shelving seas.  But, Ayia Napa is not for everyone: this is clubbers’ paradise, the “new Ibiza” the so-called “Garage-music capital of Europe” with lighting and sound systems to equal anything London has to offer.  Top UK DJ’s are resident during the summer, the clubs are mega with most having a capacity for over 2,500, and none of them open before midnight.  Those still awake during the day can shop till they drop from designer to downright dodgy goods and for the kids, there is a Waterworld theme park based on the Greek Myths, more family fun than white-knuckle, from April to mid-November.

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Statuary depicting the suffering endured during the wars

Inland from here is the island’s capital, Nicosia, and a visit to the old walled city is worthwhile if just for the walk back in time through the narrow streets of The Folk Neighbourhood – Laïki Geitonia – a renovated pedestrian area of bargain-filled artisan’s shops.  And if borders fascinate you, you can walk to the ‘Green Line’ and from a platform look over to the Turkish side of the island.

Larnaca seafront has an air of sleepy charm with cafes and tavernas lining the palm-fronted promenade but it has little to recommend it apart from its good museums and interesting monasteries but if you want the best seafood in Cyprus then head for MacKenzie Beach just outside the town, where the restaurants along the seafront are outstanding   Reservations are needed if you want Sunday lunch as this is the day Cyprus’s extended families eat out, just like in France.

Village Lacework

Cyprus is one of those blessed islands that can cater for those wanting antiquities and those who want nothing more than to soak up the relentless sun and bathe in the warm, azure sea.  It feels very familiar to visitors from the UK with familiar British chain stores, driving on the left and English being widely spoken, but the 340 days of sunshine and the laidback atmosphere leaves you in no doubt that you are abroad.

Climbing the Rigging in Paphos Harbour
Climbing the rigging 

Dreamtime on the Daintree

I found the wander.essence.com site by following a link on a recent post by restlessjo and this has prompted me to enter Cathy’s prose challenge.  Intention?  Just to try to convey some of the fun of that particular day.

My Australian images are not in the computer, nor can I find them on my external hard drive so I shall have to search for my photos of the group clad in royal blue ponchos eating damper in the rain – and all smiling.  I will find them eventually and upload them. Meantime, these images are all from Flickr.

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Ray had a string of Pom jokes with which he tried to wind us up.  “I reckon Captain Cook was the first whingeing Pom to reach Australia,” he said. “Think of the names he gave to places around here, Mount Sorrow, Mount Misery, Cape Tribulation, Weary Hill”.  As I stood there in my rain-soaked oilskins and bush whacker’s hat I muttered that maybe Cook had a point.

This wasn’t what we’d planned for our week at the Great Barrier Reef when we’d flown up from Sydney to Cairns ready to dive into the warm, underwater world of the coral paradise, but ‘unseasonal weather’ had turned the normally turquoise waters of Cairns into a steely grey.  This did, however, provide the perfect time to visit the Daintree National Park – the Aborigine’s Dreamtime that Never Wakes – travelling up from Cairns along Cook’s Highway on roads lined with pink trumpet trees and Cookstown orchids.

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Which was why we were standing on the sands at Cape Tribulation where, on June 12th, 1770, Captain James Cook’s circumnavigation of Australia ran into trouble.  The Captain wasn’t to know that the dense wall of green jungle he spied from the deck of the Endeavour would one day be recognised as the oldest rainforest in the world, nor that where we stood would be the only area in the universe where the world’s two most complete eco-systems – the Great Barrier Reef and tropical rainforest – would meet.

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Like any red-blooded Australian, Ray, our guide/driver/lecturer/cook,  took great delight in telling us about the deadly flora and fauna that inhabit the forest, like the taipans whose bite is 200 times deadlier than that of a cobra, the terrifying saltwater crocodiles  that can break a cow’s neck, and the vines that inject poison into your skin if they touch you and for which the only remedy is to burn off the top layer of flesh!  Then there is the protected cassowary, a huge flightless bird that will attack and tear you apart if you appear in the least bit threatening, poisonous spiders, leeches, mozzies and sundry other bizarre insects.  Oh, and if you meet a wombat don’t pat it, he warned.  Wombats, despite their cuddly appearance, can be very aggressive.

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I thought we might have to hack our way through snarling creepers and dense, thick undergrowth, but thankfully, the Daintree is very civilised, and we walked on wooden pathways surrounded by trees, lush palms and huge ferns, all labelled and sign-posted.  The magical, cool, dark rainforest, home to many rare and threatened animal species, is laced with waterfalls and fast-flowing streams dotted with boulders that shine like polished agate and contains plant species over millions of years old.

We sauntered through this cathedral-like space, humidity being too high for anything faster,  keeping our eyes peeled for tree-climbing kangaroos, green tree frogs, rainbow lorikeets and Boyd’s forest dragons.   When the forest canopy parted occasionally we glimpsed elegant white cockatoos flying high above, darting in and out between the trees.  Accompanying us all the time was the demented cackle of the Kookaburra.

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Ray rewarded us for not complaining about the humidity by brewing up a billy-can of tea and handing out ‘damper’, a doughy mix of flour and water which fed generations of bush travellers but is inclined to lie heavy in the stomachs of pampered ‘poms’ such as we.   Then it was on to the little town of Daintree through Mossman, where the boulder-strewn icy waters of the gorge tempted one or two to risk a paddle.

Somewhere before Daintree, Ray produced a lunch of fried fish and salad, washed down with a light Australian wine, only slightly diluted by the steady drizzle that had been falling for some time.  It was surprisingly good, and the ordeal by damper that pride had made us eat (in the surety that Ray was testing us in some way) was quickly forgotten.

Once a thriving timber town, Daintree is now the centre of the eco-tourist trade. An Aboriginal walking trail departs from here, focusing on the flora and fauna of the gorge, but to fit it in requires an extra day in the forest.   Ray convinced us we’d made a mistake by only opting for the one-day trip, but we all promised to come back again and do the walk.

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We boarded the cable-driven ferry for a trip down the crocodile infested Daintree River in the charge of Bill Brewster, the acknowledged authority on the Daintree and a  man who knows the favourite spot of every crocodile in the chocolatey brown river.  We were warned not to dabble our hands in the current as the crocodiles lurked just under the water when they weren’t resting on the creeper-swathed river banks and we weren’t actually over-the-moon when Bill steered our flat-bottomed vessel towards a patch of jungley green and pointed out what looked like a log.  Then it moved, a split second before we hurled ourselves to the far side of the boat.

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Our 4WD was awaiting us at the end of the river trip to take us back to Cape Tribulation through a wilderness region of undeveloped coastal scenery and rainforest, making frequent stops along the way to examine some particular species of tree and to check out more dinosaur-like lizards.  Fortunately, Ray was well supplied with a bad-weather collection of umbrellas, rain-hats and waterproof ponchos to counteract the steady drizzle that preserves the eco-system of this ancient rainforest.

And then we were back on the sands.  Less than ten metres from the edge of the dense greenery and we were walking on the reef again.

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Captain Cook didn’t have our luck.  He didn’t know that just beyond the dense jungle, shrouded in mist and rain, lay a stunning, beautiful world, nor did he have the benefits of a guide with a quirky sense of humour and a vanload of blue plastic ponchos.

The pinkish tinge in the sky promised better weather tomorrow for swimming with the multi-coloured fish.  But none of that mattered now.  In The Dreamtime that Never Wakes we had all found something special.   A pity Captain Cook didn’t find it too, he might have renamed those mountain tops.

 

 

In the Footsteps of The Impressionists

Looking through some images last night reminded me of a trip I took a few years ago visiting the places where the Impressionists had painted (sometimes standing exactly where they had stood as they worked), places like Rouen, Honfleur, Etretat and Le Havre in N. France.  The idea behind the trip was to look at the reality of what the artists had painted and then to try and make a connection with the painting by viewing it in a nearby gallery.

Where and what they painted at the time was a complete change in the art world, helped by pre-mixed paints in tubes and new vibrant hues like chromium yellow and French ultramarine that freed them from the chore of grinding up lapus lazuli and mixing dry pigment in linseed oil to make colour.  With these aids, their style of painting was able to evolve and they could now paint outdoors, capturing the momentary, transient aspects of light and the ever-changing colours of the clouds using ordinary subject matter.

 

Claude Monet painted more than thirty versions of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Rouen, a church which is a mishmash of architectural styles spanning four centuries, but which is mesmerizing in its scale and grandeur.    As we stood facing the church, in front of the house on the opposite side of the square from whose window Monet had painted the church, rain was pouring down its exterior walls.  But that was good.

Notre-Dame Cathedral, Rouen
Notre-Dame Cathederal, Rouen

The Musée des Beaux-Art in Rouen has a particularly fine collection of Impressionist paintings and when I came face to face with Monet’s misty, murky impression of the rainswept sumptuous west face of this massive Gothic structure, I was nearer understanding why he painted so many versions of it and who so many were painted in the rain.

 

Rouen is a maze of cobbled streets lined with beautifully preserved or restored half-timbered houses that lean crookedly together: more than 100 of these houses date back to the Middle Ages.  Many of these streets lead from the Cathedral to the famous Rue du Gros Horloge with its lavish Renaissance clock centred in an elegantly carved arch, and then to the city’s hub, the Place du Vieux Marché ringed by cafés and restaurants housed in 16th – 18th century houses, and famous as the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431.  An iron cross set in a simple little memorial garden marks the spot and a daringly designed slate-covered church dedicated to the saint stands next to it.

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Place Joan d’Arc, Rouen

Not far from Rouen is atmospheric little Honfleur, a town unlike any other in Normandy where the 10-storey high timber and slate-faced buildings that surround its 17th century Vieux Bassin has made it one of the most photographed towns on the Seine.   Bright trawlers jostle together in the old harbour to sell succulent seafood on the quayside, seafood which is later served up by the many waterside restaurants.

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Not far from Rouen is atmospheric little Honfleur, where artists were painting long before Eugène Boudin and a like-minded group of friends from Paris formed the Impressionist movement.  Attracted by the beauty of the town and the quality of its light they used to gather at the nearby Côte de Grace Hill above the town, and paint the scene before them, edging towards something experimental and new, using short, broken brushstrokes of untinted and unmixed colour, painting wet paint into wet paint instead of waiting for one layer to dry, which led to intermingling of the colours.   Later, they would drink and dine in a simple 17th-century farm dwelling, Ferme St. Siméon, now a luxurious and very expensive hotel.

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The delightful and intimate little art gallery, Musée Eugène Boudin, founded in 1868 by Honfleur’s best known artist, considered by many to be the father of Impressionism, has one of the best collections of Boudin’s own works – including the wonderful Port de Dieppe – as well as a vast collection of paintings by artists like Jongkind, Isabey, Monet, Dubourg, Mettling, Pissarro, Renoir and Dufy who came to be known as “the Honfleur school”.

Honfleur was also the birthplace in 1886 of the musician Erik Satie and it is worth spending an extra hour or two in the Maisons Satie where you are led from one room to another with the accompaniment of Satie’s music backed by a series of stunning Satie-esque visual effects – like the white piano in an all-white room that clanks and jangles maniacally.

The scene painted by Sisley at La Bouille
Scene painted by Alfred Sisley at La Bouille

A surfeit of art and too many Museums can lead to an inability to be a discerning art critic, so a trip to La Bouille on the banks of the Seine, a favourite spot for Alfred Sisley to paint, came next.   Packed with art galleries and good restaurants, this charming village is a haven of peace.  To see it from the river, you can board a cruise from Rouen and enjoy the scenery along the way, the many little villages along the curves of the Seine and the village life of France.   Canoes and kayaks swish through the water, a little ferry chugs across the river transporting passengers and cars between Duclair and La Bouille, and Sahurs and La Bouille and if you stand by the landing stage and gaze downstream to the loop in the Seine, you are looking at a scene often painted by Sisley.

 

The quality of light that floods Normandy attracted the painters to the coast at Etretat spectacular setting between cliffs eroded into arc-like shapes brought Boudin, Monet, Courbet, Isabey, Delacroix, Degas and Matisse here when it was still a fishing village.  They came to paint the natural arches and stone outcrops (one needle rock stands 70 metres high) shaped by the thundering waves:  they came also to paint the  beach scene, for Etretat was a very fashionable town in the 19th century, popular with Parisians and writers like Flaubert, Gide and Maupassant were regular visitors.

La Porte d'Aval with L'Alguille (needle)
La Porte d’Aval avec L’Alguile (needle)

(It is still popular with visitors from Paris and Le Havre).  From every angle on the promenade, you can see the scenes the impressionists worked on, but the best view is found by climbing the steps from the promenade and walking along the path at the top of the cliff.

Etretat may have attracted many visitors from nearby Le Havre, but that port city has its own magnificent steel and glass Musée Malraux right on the waterfront, recently revamped to make use of the optimum light.

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The Beach at LeHavre – Pixabay

Many people pass speedily through Le Havre without realizing that the local Museum houses an unbeatable collection of paintings by the local born Raoul Dufy, full of the dazzling blues and vibrant colours for which he is known.  Eugêne Boudin, the other impressionist who lived here, is represented in the Museum by over 200 canvasses.   Monet was brought up here from the age of five (and taken under Boudin’s wing when he was 15 years old), painted several masterpieces, including the one that some believe gave the name to the group, Impression Soleil Levant (Impression Sunrise) from a position just in front of the museum.  The collection includes the square Giverny waterlily painting and one of his brooding paintings of London’s Houses of Parliament.

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LeHavre – Pixabay

I knew little of Impressionism before I went looking at the paintings with a ‘painterly’ eye but now I no longer view thundery skies with the jaundiced eye of the philistine.  If there is a bright yellow sun I know that the Impressionists would depict the shadows as violet, and if the shadows are blue I know that the sky must have had strong orange tints.  Now on my walks, when I see changeable and tumultuous clouds I think of the skies I saw, often stretched across half a canvas, and I think, “That’s a Boudin sky” and I don’t even mind that they herald rain.

Monet hated the tag “Impressionism” but whether he liked it or not, it was this that defined the movement.  Unspoilt Normandy, rich in beguiling light, ever-changing skies and the winding Seine made the perfect studio for the painters.

 

Notes:  I would hate people to think that Rouen’s Musée des Beaux-Art only has a collection of Impressionist paintings.  It also houses a fine collection of work by Renaissance and Flemish painters, plus a magnificent Caravaggio and a whole roomful of Veronese (plus it is rich in paintings of Monet’s vibrant poppies).

If time permits, do eat at one of the glass-screened restaurants in Etretat.

Le Havre had to be massively rebuilt after the city’s obliteration during the second world war, but it still retains some old Breton architecture in the St. Francois quarter.

Palermo: Caravaggio to be Returned?

You may remember that when I wrote about the Serpotta Stuccoes, I mentioned that the Caravaggio masterpiece, Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, had been stolen from the altar of the Oratorio and that the replacement painting was not something one could really admire.

I was more than pleased, therefore, to read in The Guardian a few days ago, that there are hopes that the painting may be recovered soon as Italian investigators have received information that the painting, which was stolen in 1969, could be hidden in Switzerland.  The head of Italy’s anti-mafia commission last Thursday said that the information came from a former mobster-turned-informant who revealed that it had once been held by Gaetano Badalamenti, a ‘capo di capo’ (boss of bosses).  The informant told the mafia investigators that Badalamenti (who has since died in America where he had been convicted of heroin trafficking) had been in touch with an art dealer in Switzerland.

To have this masterpiece returned to the Oratorio of San Lorenzo would be something wondrous for the people of Palermo, as when the criminals stole the painting by cutting it from its frame with razorblades everyone presumed it was lost forever.

Rosy Bindi, the head of Italy’s anti-mafia commission, told The Guardian that they have collected enough evidence to launch a new investigation and to request the collaboration of foreign authorities, especially those in Switzerland.

Leoluca Orlando, mayor of Palermo, who has helped Palermo transform itself from a  stronghold of the mafia to a European Capital of Culture, said that the city was no longer dominated by mobsters and godfathers, that it has changed and now demands the return of everything the mafia had stolen from it.

The return of this painting to the Oratorio will be an event to be celebrated throughout Sicily.  I hope it happens soon.

Meantime, here are a few of the pictures of the 16th-century stuccoes from the Oratorio that I originally posted.

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The Garden Museum, London

The recent death of gardener and plant collector, Beth Chatto OBE, and her mention on Monty Don’s gardening programme on Friday reminded me of the retrospective to her work at the Garden Museum at Lambeth in London (formerly the Museum of Garden History) which I visited a few years ago.   I was actually visiting the Tate at the time, just across the river from the Garden Museum, but on the spur of the moment decided to pop in to see what it had to offer.

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This national resource for plants and garden history is situated on the South Bank of the Thames and sits right next door to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s London residence, Lambeth Palace and, as mentioned, is just across the river from Tate Britain.

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Lambeth Palace, London

It owes its existence to John and Rosemary Nicholson who, in 1976, discovered the neglected and forgotten tomb of the John Tradescants (1570-1638), father and son gardeners to Charles I and the first gardeners and plant hunters in British history.  They introduced many of the flowers, shrubs and trees we grow today.

The centrepiece of the tranquil Sackler Garden designed to reflect Tradescant’s life and spirit is John Tradescant’s magnificent tomb, erected in 1662 and sculpted with images of the gardeners’ travels and collecting.  Before the founding of the Garden Museum in 1977, the church was earmarked for demolition and this masterpiece of funeral art had lain neglected for many decades, the sculpted images unrecognisable beneath the soot that covered it.

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Tradescant’s Tomb

On its rescue from demolition over 40 years ago, the church was deconsecrated and subsequently converted into the world’s first museum dedicated to gardens and gardening.  The neglected graveyard which adjoined the church is now part of the museum and contains not only the tomb of the Tradescants but the tomb of one whose name most schoolboys will recognise, Captain William Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, himself a native of Lambeth.

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Captain Bligh’s Tomb

The garden has as its centrepiece, a 17th-century style knot garden designed by the Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury of Hatfield House in the traditional geometric style enclosed in a square.  Knot gardens had been popular in Britain since the Tudor period, usually formed of woody herbs clipped in geometric designs but in this case dwarf box (Buxus sempervirens) was used rather than herbs.

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The Knot Garden

Exhibitions of various kinds take place in The Garden Museum, but a Permanent Exhibition runs throughout the year.  Among the permanent exhibits is one that charts the development of gardening from pre-historic times to modern day.  The on-site library has a fine collection containing information from the Landscape Movement from Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton in the 18th century, to the 19th-century innovations that changed gardening thanks to travel (heated glasshouses and the lawnmower to name just two) and the gardens influenced by the Arts & Crafts Movement pioneered by William Morris.

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Aerial View of the Knot Garden (Copyright Garden Museum)

We tend to forget sometimes how much we owe to the adventurous plant hunters who brought back to these shores the azaleas, jasmine, rhododendrons, clematis, camellias, magnolias and lilies, but here the plant hunters are given due credit for their determination and zeal in seeking these out.  Planters like the John Tradescants, Ernest Wilson, William Dampier, Frank Kingdon Ward, Joseph Banks, David Douglas, George Forrest and Francis Masson are names only the dedicated gardeners are familiar with but they are responsible for much of what we love about English gardens today.

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Unlike most museums, the Garden Museum is a quiet, tranquil place, the restaurant/cafeteria a delightfully cool and pleasant place in which to have some light refreshments.  Take time after a visit to sit contemplatively in the garden for a few moments listening to the birds, or the drone of the bees, as they burrow into the vivid blue agapanthus and the sweet smelling lavender.  The hustle and bustle of London seem far away.

I am planning a return visit sometime in late summer as I understand the gardens have had a makeover and there is an added attraction in that they have now opened the on-site medieval tower from which there is an amazing vista over Lambeth Palace and the River Thames.

This magical place is located right in the heart of the capital, just a ten-minute walk from the London Eye, Houses of Parliament, Tate Britain, and Waterloo and Victoria stations.

 

Nearest Underground:  Lambeth North or Westminster.

Lambeth Palace Road, London, SE1 7LB.   Tel: 020 7401 8865

Open Sunday–Friday  10.30am–5.00pm

Saturday 
10.30am–4.00pm

Adult: £10:  Senior citizen: £8.50:  Student/Unemployed/Art Pass: £5

Family (1 adult, 1 child): £12.50: Family (2 adults, 2 children): £25

Children under 6 years: Free

Pézanas, where Molière Played

A town often overlooked in the Languedoc area is Pézenas, graced with elegant 17th and 18th-century houses of mellow, honey-coloured stone adorned with graceful, wrought iron balconies.

It was once the capital of Languedoc but lost that honour in the late 17th century although it continued to thrive as a trading centre for over 100 years afterwards: if you are there on a Saturday you should visit the market which hasn’t changed much since those days.  It further declined as a trading hub when it was bypassed by the railways in the 19th century and became something of a backwater.  This could be seen to have been to its benefit, however, as it has managed to preserve much of its charm from earlier days and to have escaped the ravages of over-development that have afflicted so many other French towns in the area.

During the town’s heyday, Pézenas was one of the favourite towns for the cosmopolitan elite to visit.  Travelling players made regular stops here and provided the main entertainment of the day, one of whom, Jean Baptiste Poquelin, known to us as Molière,  frequently made Pézanas his base.

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Homage to Molière in the centre of the town

The famous playwright toured with a  troupe of jobbing actors and in the process of acting and playwriting in Pézenas, he became the town’s favourite son.  In fact, so popular was he that he acquired the patronage of the Prince of Conti, governor of Languedoc, at whose court in Pézenas they often performed.

At the Place Gambetta lies the heart of this medieval town and this is where Molière would spend much of his day chatting and drinking coffee in the cafes, and visiting the tradesmen in the square among whom he had many friends.  Today, the square is a place of many delightful cafes and it gives one the chance to sit and relax while thinking about the famous resident, and maybe even reading some of his work which is available from many of the shops around.

As you wander through the old town you will sometimes find yourself in a different world, alleys lined with houses with chimneys, gables, arches, windows and doors dating from the 14th right up to the 19th  century.  It is here that you will find the medieval Jewish quarter, just one road where a few buildings carry a Jewish emblem.  Jews were able to live quietly here, in an amicable relationship with their Christian neighbours despite having been expelled from France in 1394 under the orders of King Charles Vl.  (When I was there a few years ago there was talk of a Jewish Museum being opened in the quarter).

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A shop full of handmade wooden toys

Pézenas has a tradition of fine craftsmanship and you will find many craft shops on your walks through the town, from woodwork to stone carving.  New crafts are well represented too in the form of boutique-style fashion shops where the designs range from quirky to haute couture.

The Tourist Office on Place des Etats du Languedoc is one of the most interesting I’ve ever come across, as it is contained, along with the town’s ancient prison, inside the Hôtel Peyrant on Place des Etats du Languedoc.

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The Tourist Office

The building is interesting in its own right, once offering accommodation to aristocrats as well as prisoners.  You can explore the old jail but to get the best out of a visit to the Hôtel, try to make time to see the wonderful Scenovision Moliere, a 3D show about the famous playwright that takes place over five acts, each performed in a different room of the building.   Details herewith.

Scenovision Moliere

The 3D film show in French and English is presented on the upper floors of the tourist office. daily 9am-noon and 2-6pm Monday to Saturday (from 10am on Sun) with a break for lunch, with extended hours over the peak summer season with no lunch break.  Adults €6: children €4:  families €15

Pézenas Tourist Office, Hotel Peyrat, Place des Etats du Languedoc

http://www.scenovcisionmoliere.com

If cruising the canals of France, it is easy to arrange a visit to Pezanas.

 

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In a town of old doors, this is the oldest
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Artisan chocolates – luscious

 

Among my (Japanese) Souveneirs

Having decided that sentimentality has to give way to practicality when one has downsized and lacks room, I am making strenuous efforts to clear away the bits and bobs that one brings back from one’s travels.  I’m not talking the sort of souvenir that one puts on the sideboard or has pride of place in the hall, I’m talking about things like programmes, tickets and other ephemera.

And none that I have short-listed to be disposed of are causing me such a problem as these below.

The Menu on the right is not crumpled, it is the style of paper on which it is printed.

Hand-painted menus are a feature of most of Japan’s Ryokens (traditional Japanese-style hotels) and it was one of the pleasures of the meal to be presented with these delightful examples of Japanese art.  Not only were the delicate floral designs lovely to look at but the papers were all of a high quality, often marbled or embossed.  The smaller paper was usually the actual menu, folded and tucked inside the larger menu page.

The dishes on which the food was served were equally beautiful, dainty, thin porcelain bowls and plates on which the food was arranged so artistically it seemed wrong to disturb it just to satisfy hunger.  I will confess, I didn’t always enjoy the food.  There was an amazing amount of small dishes but the texture of so many seemed slimy (an overabundance of abalone in many cases), and when I did get a dish I could enjoy it was of minuscule proportions.

However, here are some pictures of the food.  Enjoy these while I try and decide whether I can throw away these lovely menus, or if I can think of another use for them.

All these pictures were taken by one of my travelling companions, Steve Moore, who enjoyed the food on every occasion.  I think it shows in his compositions.

There was usually one dish that had to be cooked personally, so a miniature barbecue or a dish of oil would be on the table (one for each person).  Nothing too difficult, small pieces of Kobe beef, fish fillets, that sort of thing.

As the menus were in Japanese we were never sure of what we were eating.  The waiter/waitress took great care to explain each dish but sometimes there was no translation for what we were faced with, something very pink turned out to be ginger, something that looked like a bean was a paste formed into the shape of a bean.

Imagine the time it took just to arrange these items on the plate.

And now, for something completely different.

Weekly Photo Challenge – SMILE

 

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Laughing Camel at Petra

The camel was probably laughing at the tourists who were trying to bribe the owners of the few horses that were there to help those who couldn’t walk through the old city in the heat.  I won’t disclose the nationality of those who had disembarked from a cruise ship and thought to buy their way on to a horse, but they all seemed overweight to me.  Surprisingly, in this poor country, the horse owners insisted on first come firsdt served.  Or could there have been someone overlooking overlooking the situation, who wasn’t obvious to us?

Another reminder from that trip.  One in our group asked the guide if he could stop the sellers of jewellery from pestering us. He just quietly said., “No, Madam.  Your buying a small trinket from him could mean the difference between his children eating tonight or not”.  Something I’ve never forgotten when I’m feeling under pressure from itinerant sellers.

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Rise/Set

Sunrise in Thailand, as it came up over the Gulf.  Taken from the balcony of my favourite hotel, the Dusit Thani Hua Hin.

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Sun just above the horizon
Sunrise over Gulf of Siam
Almost fully risen illuminating the empty beach beyond the pool & lagoon.
Phuket Sunset
Sunset in Phuket near BangTao Beach
Nothing beats a shiny sunset, sea and palm trees
Sunset nearly complete: Phuket

This next one may not fit the bill exactlyl, but it’s one of my favourites, reminding me of a special trip.  I can almost feel the heat of the day as I look at this.

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Phuket: Thai friends on the lake, homeward boung at sunset.

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